Pixar 10, lousy movies 0 (pt. 1) ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pixar 10, lousy movies 0 (pt. 1)

I've previously only done retro reviews for films in a series or franchise. But Pixar is pretty much a franchise in itself; every single movie it's ever made has been good to excellent. No other film studio can claim such a track record, and thus no other film studio has become as recognizable a brand as Pixar - you're not gonna hear "I can't wait for the next 20th Century Fox movie!" anytime soon. So now that they've just released Up, their 10th film (or rather, now that it's finally here in Malaysia, almost 3 months after its US release), here's a look back at their nine previous films, all of which I picked up on DVD to rewatch as necessary. Dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.

Toy Story (1995)
My rating:

The world's first fully computer-generated film - which, when it first came out, was seen as little more than a gimmick. It's hard to imagine the impact it made at that time - it was the first time anyone had seen Pixar's now-firmly-established formula of humour, action, warmth, and thematic richness, all executed in technically and artistically stunning CGI. The world really was blown away by Toy Story.

What surprised me, watching it again after several years, was how sophisticated the story is. Woody is basically a decent guy; charismatic, well-liked, and a good friend to his fellow toys. His one flaw is that he puts too much of his self-worth on his status as Andy's favourite toy - and when that status is threatened by the arrival of Buzz, Woody turns into a full-blown bastard. The rest of the movie is about him learning to become the hero he used to think he is, by setting aside his insecurity and utilizing his real strengths - his natural leadership ability and brilliant tactical planning (witness his stratagem for escaping from Sid's house, rescuing Buzz, and teaching Sid a lesson, all in one go). This is some complex and mature storytelling, folks, and in an all-ages animated film? Amazing then, amazing now.

Fourteen years after its release, the only thing that doesn't hold up is the animation quality. The characters' faces, especially the human ones like Sid and Andy, are pretty rough (and in the Tin Toy short film that comes with the DVD, the baby looks downright cacat). But only the most small-minded would not overlook this and enjoy Toy Story's boundless pleasures. Funny, clever, filled with lovable characters, even thrilling - in fact, it climaxes with one of the most exciting car chases in cinema, up there with anything in Bullitt or The French Connection or any of the Jason Bourne trilogy. Not kidding, folks. Its rousing ending is only the cherry on a marvelously satisfying cake.

A Bug's Life (1998)
My rating:

A Bug's Life came out just a month after DreamWorks' Antz, which many at the time felt was the better computer-animated film about anthropomorphic insects. Having not watched that movie in ages, I can't compare the two; but what is clear is that Pixar's second film will likely go down as its weakest. Its story isn't as mature or ambitious as Toy Story's, and many of the plot elements come across as cliched and corny. And I'll be glad to never see another scene in which the climax hinges around someone's oh-so-eloquent speechifying.

Of course, even a weak Pixar film is still an enjoyable one. It's terrifically funny, both in the clever jokes about insect behaviour as well as in the ensemble of characters - more so if you've watched The Three Amigos, Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven, all of which this movie parodies. The action sequences too are inventive and exciting, and Flik is as brilliant a tactical planner as Woody. Hopper is as smart as he is vicious, which is actually kinda rare for movie villains. And the "outtakes" during the end credits are both ingenious and freaking funny.

Still, it ultimately doesn't leave much of an impression. It's only the third 3D-animated film ever made, and looking back at the nine years since its release, it comes up about on par with stuff like Shark Tale and Madagascar and the Ice Age series. These are the movies which Pixar usually blows out of the water, both critically and commercially. It's still a lot of fun, but on the whole it's for Pixar completists only.

Toy Story 2 (1999)
My rating:

It's shocking to think that Toy Story 2 was once intended to be one of Disney's cheapo direct-to-video sequels. One of the few movie sequels that's better than its (already excellent) original, it achieves this with stunning thematic depth and richness. A cartoon about toys that's also a satire on toy collectors who collect them but don't play with them - and above all, a treatise on the ephemeral nature of love, brought to life with action, humour and poignancy? If A Bug's Life was a misstep, this is more than just a return to form - it's a bar-raiser.

The most memorable scene is, of course, Jessie's reminiscence of her previous owner Emily, set to Sarah McLachlan's rendition of "When She Loved Me". Few scenes in cinema are as emotionally powerful; even if your eyes don't mist up, you're guaranteed to feel nostalgic for the toys of your childhood - and guilty for throwing them away when you grew up. But it's not all heavy-going. The road crossing scene is a masterpiece of slapstick and suspense, and the antics of Buzz #2 - the one that still thinks he's a Space Ranger - highlight Pixar's mastery of character animation. The climactic rescue of Jessie from the plane doesn't quite match up to Toy Story's remote-controlled car chase, but it's a thrilling action sequence nonetheless.

Above all, it's a joy to spend time with these characters again - Woody, Buzz, Mr. Potato Head, Rex, Hamm, Slinky, and the rest of the Andy's Room gang. It's a testament to Pixar's commitment to not repeating themselves that this is so far their only sequel - but honestly, there isn't any of their films that you wouldn't love to see a sequel to, if they can make ones that surpass their originals so brilliantly. And with Toy Story 3 coming next year, there's every assurance that they'll do it again. Check out what's been announced about the premise of that upcoming film - it appears that the themes that this movie touched on will be explored even more fully. I can barely wait.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)
My rating:

I'm giving Monsters, Inc. three stars, mostly because the story isn't as deep or ambitious as their best. But that's a personal bias, and it'd be mean of me if I didn't mention that it's also one of their most purely fun movies. While I don't think it's among their best, it's still a damn sight better than practically any of rival DreamWorks Animation's stuff, as well as their other three-star entry A Bug's Life. It doesn't have as many characters, so it develops them better and gives each one more time to shine. Yes, Sulley's relationship with Boo is pretty formulaic, but their growing affection is so well-executed - and Boo is so incredibly cute - that it becomes one of the best examples of the formula.

What Pixar did with toys and insects, here they do for the denizens of Monstropolis - that is, create a fully-realized world that is strange, yet recognizable, and above all funny. This may be the best and most detailed story world they've created yet; how their city is powered by the screams of frightened children, which explains why they become literal monsters in the closet, which they access through a network of trans-dimensional doors. What it lacks in emotional engagement, it makes up for in sheer worldbuilding ingenuity, and I was seriously tempted to award it an extra half-star just for this. And the climactic chase scene among (and through) those doors is one of the best action sequences ever animated.

Pixar has largely eschewed stunt casting, but Billy Crystal and John Goodman are the perfect voices for Mike and Sulley (knowing Crystal, most of his dialogue was probably improvised), and their banter makes for most of the movie's laughs. Boo wouldn't have been half as adorable were it not for then-three-and-a-half-year-old Mary Gibbs' baby-talk and giggling. Randall is an effective villain, but unfortunately Steve Buscemi's performance is the weakest part of the character. Monsters, Inc. may not have reached the heights of its immediate predecessor, but it's still good enough that Pixar's reputation for superlative family entertainment stayed pretty damn bright.

Finding Nemo (2003)
My rating:

Where Monsters, Inc. is a solid home run, Finding Nemo knocks it out of the park - again. From the opening scene in which both Marlin's wife and his unborn children are killed (albeit offscreen), it lets you know upfront that this isn't gonna be another kiddie movie. It is, in fact, a story about the complex relationship between parents and children; how the overprotectiveness of one can stifle the other and keep them from achieving their full potential. And the main character is the parent, not the kid. Which studio has the balls to make a cartoon movie about that?

This is perhaps their most beautifully animated movie to date; some underwater scenes are virtually indistinguishable from real life, and although the characters can talk and have human personalities, they look and move and behave like fish. And their fish jokes this time are even funnier than their toy or insect or monster jokes, more so if you rear tropical fish. Dory may be one of their most lovable characters ever; Ellen DeGeneres' performance is truly inspired, especially during her whale-speaking scenes. And although the story is about a dad and his son, it's the scene of Dory desperately pleading for Marlin not to leave her that's the most poignant.

The only real villain is Darla, the callous little girl who kills fishes, and even the sharks appear to have kicked their "addiction" to eating fish at the end. Most of the denizens of the ocean are helpful to Marlin and Dory, and this makes for one of the most good-natured Pixar films to date. Where A Bug's Life seemed messy with too many characters, Finding Nemo has an even larger ensemble, but handles it better. From Crush the surfer-dude turtle, through Gill and the rest of the fishtank gang, to Nigel the friendly pelican, these are all terrifically likable and memorable characters. But for me, it's the poignancy and emotional depth that makes this one of Pixar's best. (Which is kind of a redundancy, actually.)

Update: Ratings revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.